As regular readers will have noticed, I haven’t blogged in awhile. This is in part because I’m on the road for most of six weeks, but also because the news about OOXML continues to be both more predictable as well as more intense. At some point, the single events of the day become less individually meaningful, because they are simply part of the same fractal pattern that has replicated itself over and over since September of 2005, when Massachusetts adopted ODF, putting document standards on many powerful companies’ strategic maps. Since then, that pattern has spread dramatically, engulfing more companies, affecting more National Bodies in more countries, and invoking more campaigning on both sides. Only rarely is something now written or said that cuts through this fog of war. A few days ago in South Africa, someone did just that, and that’s what I’ve written about today.
A voice of reason is particularly welcome at this juncture, as those fractal patterns are replicating at an increasingly feverish pace as the deadline for changing votes on OOXML rapidly approaches. For example: in the US, a first vote held last week in INCITS ran heavily towards leaving last summer’s vote to approve OOXML in place. A detailed schedule was laid out (as it had been last summer) to allow for other ballots to be held to determine whether, in compliance with standing rules, a greater consensus could be achieved around some other result (e.g., to abstain or to disapprove). But after one conference call this week, it was agreed that there was no point to taking any further votes, as no one was likely to budge from their initial position, regardless of discussion or attempts at compromise.
And this: from Romania, I received an email yesterday describing a new stacking situation. And then there is the continuing clash over what did and did not happen, and what was and was not achieved at the Ballot Resolution Meeting in Geneva last month. For its part, Microsoft’s Jason Matusow says that OOXML is much better than it was when initially submitted, and therefore calls the BRM an “unqualified success,” while IBM’s Rob Weir points out how many defects still remain, and Sun’s Tim Bray concluded that the BRM, while well intentioned, was “complete, utter, unadulterated bullshit” (in a similarly diplomatic aside, he pronounced that Ecma, the standards group that midwifed the delivery of OOXML to ISO/IEC JTC 1, was a “toxic leech”)
For my part, I focused on the fact that only a small number of the c. 800 substantive, non-editorial comments had actually been discussed and, as needed, amended before being approved. I judged the BRM a failure on that basis. Convenor Alex Brown and I disagreed on this conclusion in an ongoing exchange of comments that you can find at that same entry.
Meanwhile, an analyst named Dennis Byron launched a series of startling articles on OOXML. In one, he incredibly railed against Microsoft for “wasting stockholder value” on standards. In another, he launched wild allegations against IBM that are totally at odds with all facts of which I have personal knowledge. [Update: see the exchange of comments between Dennis and me below]
It’s all very depressing, as well as predictable. And it won’t be over until it’s over on March 29. Except, of course, it won’t be over then, either. The battle at hand then will simply be the next skirmish, as the forces temporarily withdraw from the field while the votes are counted.
By now, of course, everyone is completely dug in, earplugs firmly in place, and no one is really listening to anyone with a viewpoint other than their own – they’re either tuned into Fox News or NPR, and never the channel shall be switched. It seems almost gratuitous, therefore, to write anything at all about OOXML, because the practical effect will almost certainly be nil. Just before the BRM, I tried one last time to explain why I think the OOXML vote matters so much. In that piece, I described what I called “Civil ICT Rights,” and explained why “Civil ICT Standards” were essential to secure those rights. That piece touched a few people, but was of course just another drop in the bucket.
Still, the number of drops that continue to fall, the disparate buckets in which they are landing, and the variety of metaphors and meanings used by those who “get” the importance of unencumbered (either by patents or by undue vendor influence) standards and free and open source software (FOSS) continue to add up. Each of these efforts succeeds in making real to a few more people why Civil ICT Rights matter, and why Civil ICT Standards must therefore not only be recognized, but differentiated and protected from the inadequate imitators that can undercut their utility.
Yesterday, someone sent me a link to one of the most eloquent and beautiful explanations of why Civil ICT Standards and FOSS matter. That explanation was provided by South African Minister of Public Service and Administration Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi in her opening remarks at the Idlelo African Conference on FOSS and Digital Commons. You can find the full text here, as well as a link to a video of the speech itself. I’d encourage you to read or view the full speech (it’s not very long), but I will provide some excerpts below so that you can grasp the essence of what the Minister was trying to convey:
…This past year has been marked by a raising in the tension between the traditional incumbent monopoly software players and the rising champions of the Free Software movement in Africa. The flashpoints of conflict have been particularly marked around the development and adoption of open standards and growing concerns about software patents….
It is unfortunate that the leading vendor of office software, which enjoys considerable dominance in the market, chose not to participate and support ODF in its products, but rather to develop its own competing document standard which is now also awaiting judgement in the ISO process. If it is successful, it is difficult to see how consumers will benefit from these two overlapping ISO standards. I would like to appeal to vendors to listen to the demands of consumers as well as Free Software developers. Please work together to produce interoperable document standards. The proliferation of multiple standards in this space is confusing and costly….
An issue which poses a significant threat to the growth of an African software development sector (both Free Software and proprietary) is the recent pressure by certain multinational companies to file software patents in our national and regional patent offices. Whereas open standards and Free Software are intended to be inclusive and encourage fair competition, patents are exclusive and anti-competitive in their nature. Whereas there are some industries in which the temporary monopoly granted by a patent may be justified on the grounds of encouraging innovation, there is no reason to believe that society benefits from such monopolies being granted for computer program “inventions”. The continued growth in the quantity and quality of Free Software illustrates that such protection is not required to drive innovation in software. Indeed all of the current so-called developed countries built up their considerable software industries in the absence of patent protection for software. For those same countries to insist on patent protection for software now is simply to place protectionist barriers in front of new comers. As the economist, Ha-Joon Chang, observed: having reached the top of the pile themselves they now wish to kick away the ladder.
African software developers have enough barriers to entry as it is, without the introduction of artificial restrictions on what programs they are and aren’t allowed to write. When Steven Biko wrote “I write what I like” he was not referring to computer programs but it would certainly be an apt motto for today’s generation of African Free Software developers. It will become increasingly important for FOSSFA to continue to lobby and mobilize to keep this intellectual space open.
One cannot be in Dakar without being painfully aware of the tragic history of the slave trade. For three hundred years, the Maison des Esclaves (Slave House) on Gorée Island, was a hub in the system of forceful transportation of Africans as slaves to the plantations of the West Indies and the southern states of America. Over the same period people were being brought as slaves from the Malay Archipelago and elsewhere to South Africa. The institution of slavery played such a fundamental role in the early development of our current global economy, that by the end of the 18th century, the slave trade was a dominant factor in the globalised system of trade of the day.
As we find ourselves today in this new era of the globalised Knowledge Economy there are lessons we can and must draw from that earlier era. That a crime against humanity of such monstrous proportions was justified by the need to uphold the property rights of slave owners and traders should certainly make us more than a little cautious about what should and should not be considered suitable for protection as property….
Not long ago, I dedicated an issue of Standards Today to the topic of Globalization, Standards and Intellectual Property Rights. The Feature article was titled Government Policy and “Standards-Based Neocolonialism.” Needless to say, I couldn’t agree with the Minister’s position more. She’s dead on target – and it matters.
There are many people in the middle who are neither pro-ODF nor Pro OOXML, in part because it seems to them that each is “just another standard.” From this perspective, it seems reasonable to conclude that if OOXML is better now than it was six months ago and is something like what Office 2007 is based upon, then, well, we should just say “yes” instead of “no.” My hope is that over time, if not by March 29, the majority of those that have the right to vote on standards will come to understand what Ms. Fraser-Moleketi has so eloquently explained. If they do, then Civil ICT Rights can be secured, and Civil ICT Standards will earn the recognition and protection that they deserve, and upon which I believe so much depends.
If you hope so, too, then perhaps you might want to contact your National Body, and suggest that they read and carefully consider what Ms. Fraser-Moleketi has to say.
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